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Wednesday 16 September 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant:The Bureacracy Trap

Last Week's Ordeals: The Bureaucracy Trap

I figure by now many of you are wondering exactly what happened to me last week, that caused me to be away for four days (give or take).

It's time you all heard that story.

It all started on Tuesday last week, when I noticed my ADSL blinking on and off. Montevideo is going through its heat wave right now, and those external ADSL boxes heat up like a sonofabitch, so I figured that it could be that the damn thing was overcooked.  When it turned out you could fry an egg over it, I knew it was so.  I tried to shut the damn thing down, but it was too late, by then it had melted clear through my desk, my floor, and down to apartment #301.

Right, I figured. Time to call "technical services" at ANTELDATA, service provider to me and the other 2.9 million Uruguayans.  Yup, they're a monopoly; technically other companies offer ISP services, but since Antel controls all of the actual IPs coming into Uruguay, no matter who you do business with, you're doing business with Antel.  Its got all of the stupidity of competition with none of the benefits.

So I called them up, realizing that hopes of something getting resolved by this point were pretty dim, given that it was already about 9pm.  The girl at the phone was friendly, and said that a Technical expert would call me.  When? She wasn't sure, but very soon.

Ok, great.  I don't have to wait on the phone, I just relax and they'll call me very soon.

Day 2:
The technical expert hadn't called me.  By about 11am I was sure that no technical expert was going to call me, so I called "technical services" back again, a little upset.  After being told I was 21st in line on hold and all operators were busy, I was more than a little upset.  It didn't help that instead of the typical muzak for waiting, all we got was the Carpenter's "Close to You", repeated over and over again, performed entirely with ringtone beeping.  After about 40 minutes of that chinese water torture I finally got through, and managed to impose on the less-than-friendly girl the significance of my problem, and she assured me that this time, the technical expert would call me in one hour.

2pm: The technical expert hadn't called me. I call again, for the third time, suffering through the waiting period and the awful beepy cover of Close to You again, and tell the girl that I really want to speak to a Technical Expert RIGHT NOW, and not wait.  She agrees, says, "one moment please"; and hangs up on me.
At this point my blood pressure is through the roof, I'm one step away from swinging the fucking phone in an warlike arc in the air and throwing it out my fifth-story window, and my cat is hiding under the sofa in terror.
I call again. Again Close to You.
Beep beep beep, beep beep be-be-beeeeep, be-be-beep, be-be-bee-ee-ee-eep.
(sons of bitches I want to kill them all)
Beep beep beep, be-be be-beep, be-be-beep.
(fucking socialist sons of bitches with their fucking monopoly)
Finally a girl answers.  I once more express the problem to her, along with a few choice words about her fellow operator's decision to hang up on me, but not before I make sure to get this operator's name to make sure the same sort of shenanigans won't take place. She agrees to put me through to a Technical Expert.  "One moment please"...
..suddenly, I find myself back in the main menu of the phone. FUCKING HELL. Once more I disk fucking "2" for ADSL services, once more I wait 20 mins with the FUCKING Close To You. A different girl answers, and I decide that at this point I will make myself clear. My ADSL modem is BROKEN.  I do NOT want to talk to a Technical Expert in an hour. I do not want to talk to a Technical Expert right now. I want a Technical Expert to COME TO MY FUCKING APARTMENT WITH A NEW ADSL MODEM, and I want this done before the end of the day, or there will be unspeakable hell to pay.

This girl in particular seemed to get the gravitas in my voice. Deep down inside, she realized that my mind had snapped, and the next step should she fail to do what I asked would be for me to go downtown to the Anteldata  offices with a sawed off shotgun in hand, blowing new holes into everyone I saw, while whistling "Close to You".  And she knew, worst of all, that no court in the land would convict me.

So she did the only thing she could at this point, the absolute last resort of the socialist bureaucrat: she provided me with the service she was contractually obliged to. A Technical Expert was on his way, before 6pm, I was told. It would have to be before 6pm, since that's when they stop working for the day.

I decided to trust this girl. The sheer terror in her voice told me that she wasn't bullshitting me, that she, like me, had run out of options and knew that it was this or hot lead. So I hung up, and spent the next couple of hours trying to find things to do to keep me occupied. I wrote a review of Iron Gauntlets.  I translated some sanskrit poetry. I became an absolute master at Chuzzle. I came to realize just how brutally useless my $2000 machine was without a simple telephonic connection.

The hours rolled by, and I was getting nervous, but of course I wasn't going to call the fuckers back again until 6pm. Finally, at 5:20pm, my doorbell rings. I'm pleasantly surprised to hear that its the Anteldata Tech guy. Maybe this long nightmare is nearing its end.

Going downstairs and opening the door, I am greeted by Walter, a sextagenarian guy who looks like he'd be more in place down on the farm, or working in a mechanic's shop, than doing Tech Support for ADSL internet connections. Walter proves to be a relatively pleasant surprise, though, as he quickly admits that my old modem is broken, pulls out a new one (the newer, smaller model), and plugs it in.

We test it out, just to make sure. We get an "Error 678: could not connect with outside source". We try again, to the same result. The new modem's lights are all on, everything seems to be in working order. Walter pulls out his laptop, and connects the modem to the laptop, to test if the problem is coming from my machine, and finds that he can't connect with the laptop either.

Could it be the modem, I ask him? He tells me its not the modem, the modem is new, and all the lights are on. I ask him if he couldn't try with a different modem just to be sure, but he points out to me that, in fact, Anteldata only gives them one modem at a time. Stupid, stupid fuckers.

He calls Technical Assistance on his cellphone, obviously having an inside line that means he is spared the terror of Close to You. He starts getting into an argument with the "kid" (his word) on the other side of the line. The "kid" insists that the problem must be with my machine, because everything over there seems to be working fine.  Of course, Walter says that everything here is working fine, and my machine couldn't be to blame, because the modem doesn't connect with his laptop either.  Pretty soon he's hurling insults across the phone, and the Kid in turn is openly refusing to do what Walter is telling him to do to test the ADSL connection, point blank.  Walter asks to talk to the supervisor. The kid tries to tell him that there is no supervisor there; which Walter points out would be against regulations, and threatens to leave for the head office right now to file a report. The kid keeps trying to hem and haw, so Walter hangs up on him.  Its 6pm now, so he's done working, but as a favour to me he'll send a report to head office, and "we'll get these bastards" he tells me.

Great, but what about my fucking internet connection?? I ask him if I can have a different phone number to call so I can bypass the airhead secretaries, considering that at this point its been two days and this is an urgent situation. He tells me that he can't do that, but he finally promises to call me first thing in the morning, and if the boneheads at head office haven't fixed my problem by then, he'll get on their ass about it.

Day 3: Its brutally hot, and I don't have ADSL.  Early in the morning I'm awakened by Walter's phone call.  "Is it working?" he asks. "No." I tell him. "Right," he says, "Someone will be calling you in one hour".

I'd heard that before. But hey, its Walter.  Walter wasn't like those fucking phone operators. He was real. He looked like the guy you'd see in the corner bar, getting drunk on grappa.  That made him my sort of person.

And true to good old Walter, I did get a phone call, from a Technical Expert, about an hour later. He asked me to try to connect again, but I got the 678 Error again. He asked me to check all kinds of settings on my computer; I reminded him that there's no fucking way the problem could be with my computer, but humoured him. in the end, he said they couldn't find the problem, but that they would, at this point, "change my port". Doing that would almost certainly fix whatever was wrong somewhere in the line between me and the internet that made it impossible for me to get there from here. He told me that someone would call me in under two hours.

That was at 11am.  By 2pm, three hours later, no one had called. Once more, I had to go through the nightmare of calling the help line, and waiting and listening to "Close to You". This was, by now, my fifth call to the help line. By this point I knew my case number off by heart, and made the mistake of saying that first, in a desperate attempt to save time.  The girl, confused by my skipping all of her initial questions, reacted badly.  She said that according to her I had already received a new modem.  That's true, I told her, but I still can't fucking connect to the internet.  Meanwhile I want to know if someone is changing my port. She told me that she couldn't tell me that.  Doing a double take, I asked her why the fuck not: had my case suddenly become a question of national security?! What the fuck was going on here?? She told me that only a Technical Expert could tell me, to which my reply was: that's why I was trying to get you to pass me onto a fucking technical expert, you mangy fucking tart! The clueless girl said she wasn't allowed to. Wasn't allowed? What the fuck... it's not like I hadn't talked to them before!! What the fuck is this?? By now I felt like I was in the fucking Twilight zone, trapped in some kind of wierd limbo where  no one on the telephone would ever make any sense, and I would never have ADSL again. She told me she'd send them a message and promised that someone would contact me before the end of the day.

Fine. Except once more, I was a prisoner in my own apartment.  They don't say "we'll call you between 11:20 and 11:50"; no, they don't even say "we'll call you between 2 and 4".  They say "we'll call you, at some point":  That means that if you dont' want to lose the message, you need to be at home. The entire fucking day. With no ADSL. Waiting like an idiot, in the vain hope that they'll actually do it and call you, when of course in reality the only reason they even say that is to cull out the weak, figuring that if they don't call and you don't call back to complain, your problem must be resolved.

I really would go for absolutely any alternative to Anteldata, if there was any.  What about Cable Modem you ask? Good question.  The answer is, there is none.  Not because of any technological backwardness in Uruguay; no; because of political backwardness.  You see, Antel, the state phone company, is one of the most powerful bureaucracies  in the government.  And they somehow successfully argued that their monopoly extends beyond just the actual physical phone lines, to "communications media" of all kinds.  As such, they managed to make Cable Modem lines illegal in Uruguay.  No cable company can offer internet by cable. Uruguay is doomed to only have ADSL, forever. Or until an irate Canadian bombs the fucking Antel building in retribution.

By 7pm, I'd once more had enough of waiting. Calling yet again (6th time), I demanded to speak to a Technical Expert. Once again the ring of insanity around the edges of my voice scared the girl into compliance.  So much for "not being allowed" to connect me directly. Fuckers.
The Technical Expert apologized and claimed not to know why his colleague hadn't called me, but he said that my port had been moved and now my internet connection was working. Great, except IT FUCKING WASN'T.  I had been periodically checking it, having no fucking better thing to do all day while I waited for you fuckers to call. And I could tell you, here with my own eyes, that it was NOT fucking working. If it was fucking working, you stupid worthless cunt, I wouldn't be bothering to call you would I???
He had me hold on a second, and then got back on the line. I was right, he said. Apparently, the port hadn't been changed.
WHAT? You had just fucking told me that it had!
Yes, he said, because your file says it has.  Someone changed the detail on your file, but no one actually went out and did it.

So let me get this straight: You're saying that some fucker just went and put "I fixed it" on my file, without actually doing a fucking thing?!
Yes, he told me, they probably forgot.

At this point I began threatening to sue them, for extreme mental distress, not to mention the fact that I had already been 3 days without internet, that's 1/10 of the month. You know, he said, you can apply to get a discount from your monthly bill. Do I sound like someone who wants a "discount from their monthly bill"  to you?? No, I'm someone who WANTS TO FUCKING GET BACK ON THE INTERNET.  And, in an ideal world, I want to have a fucking choice about dealing with some fucking company other than yours!  And, in a truly utopic world, I would really love the opportunity to line up every single fucker who I've had the displeasure of being in contact with during this whole ordeal (except maybe Walter) and have them savaged by a pack of wild timberwolves.

The technician told me that they'd try to fix it, but that the job probably couldn't be done until tomorrow. And of course, he claimed they would call me. Spare me your lies, I told him.  Only once in this whole thing, out of 6 seperate promises that I would be "called", did someone actually get back in touch with me without me having to go phoning back on my own initiative. He told me to keep trying to connect online for the next couple of hours, just in case if it got fixed.

Day 4:  I was still awake at 2am, which normally I would be, working online.  But in this case, it was a combination of habit, the heat, and my own stress that was keeping me awake.  I had enough adrenaline rushing through me that anything that crossed my path at this time was likely to be at the bad receiving end of violence.  A big 6L jug of mineral water that wouldn't open ended up repeatedly stabbed with a meat knife until there was water everywhere.  A kleenex box of inferior quality ended up torn to shreds.  This was my revenge on incompetent products.  You see, I'd bought the 6L "Nativa" mineral water, even though it was of lower quality than the 5L "Salus" water, because the extra liter of water was only 2 pesos more.  But in exchange for that, I was stuck with a jug that wouldn't open.
I'd bought the kleenex because it was all the store had, even though the "kleenex" license in Uruguay makes these godawful tissues that fall to shreds the second you blow on them, while the "Elite" brand are incredibly resilient.  But in my impatience, I'd gone with what was there.
In both cases, it had been my mistake for going with the shoddier product. After brutally avenging myself on them, I swore that I would never repeat the mistake, and went on to clean up the mess of watery clumps of ruined tissue paper that was all over the floor.
Fortunately, I could make such an oath, because of the beauty of capitalism. There are competing products. If you're willing to pay more, you can get better quality; you have CHOICE.
But with the fucking socialist state telephone monopoly, I had no such option.  Even if I was theoretically willing to pay millions a month (and by then, I would have been were there such an option), I could NOT get a different service than the utterly crappy, incompetent, corrupt, fucked up service that was being offered to me.

By 3 in the morning my place was spic and span, and I decided to try calling the "24 Hr" help line for the 7th time, just to see if I could get any more information. I fully expected that in fact, I would end up getting a robot or something, and there was no way the phone line of ANY state company would REALLY be 24 Hour. But, to my surprise, a human being answered me.  Apparently, in the wee hours of the morning, the ones who don't work are the annoying, useless, and rude secretaries, who clearly have a better union contract than the Tech Experts themselves do; because if you call at 3 in the morning, your phone is answered DIRECTLY by a Tech Expert.  What's more, its answered by an insanely bored tech expert with nothing  to do, because no one in Uruguay calls an ADSL help line at 3am, because they all assume that the "24 hour service" claim is false.

The dude turned out to be the first really friendly and helpful person I'd spoken to since Walter. He spent the next hour and a half talking me through all kinds of stuff, on my side of the line and his, trying to see if he couldn't fix the problem.  According to him, the port change was still listed as having been "done"; but he wasn't sure if that was the old claim or the new one. His own investigations told him that the "Port change" had been done, but he thought it might have been done erroneously, which explained why I was still getting "678 errors".

Finally, he too failed to correct the problem. But at least he'd tried, and at least he'd been sincere. He told me that he would pass the data on to the dayshift, and advised me to call again in the day.  Note: He didn't promise me that they'd call me, he didn't bullshit me. He gave it to me straight, and in the process proved to me that every single other person out of the dozens I'd ended up speaking to so far had been lying to me.

The next day, I called again. It would be the 8th time I called the fucking help line, the 8th time I had to listen to the beep-beep version of "Close to You".  And I was attended to by a girl named "alejandra" who turned out to be easily and by far the most annoying, condescending, unreasonable bitch of the lot.  She told me that according to my file the port changed had occured, and that it was "impossible" that there could continue to be a problem. She told me that she would not put me in touch with a technical expert, that she would send them a message and they would call me. When I pointed out to her that this had been a problem for FOUR DAYS now and that every single person who claimed that had ended up lying to me, she insisted that this was all she could do, and all but said that she was actually doing nothing.

Finally, I'd had enough.  I made some calls, and got in touch with the supervisor there. I explained my situation, and he told me that he'd fix it, and that he'd be having a talk with Alejandra too.

In retrospect, my buddy Alejo called me an idiot for not doing that first, and choosing to suffer through  four days of hell, given the particular contacts I have in this country.  But there were two things that worked to prevent me from doing so.  The first was that I wanted to give the regular means at least a chance of working (that, Alejo told me, was the stupid part).   The second was that once I did start the regular process of technical assistance, the fuckers had been incredibly good at convincing me that a solution was only a few hours away at most.  Their constant promises that someone would give me a call, that something was being done, etc etc., even though apparently ABSOLUTELY NOTHING was being done, had served to keep me hooked for just a few hours more, willing to play their game in the sucker's bet that it would all get fixed if I just played by the rules.

But by then, I'd gone beyond caring.  Alejandra's bitchiness had driven me over the edge, the fact that nothing seemed to be working had driven me to desperation, and to top it all off, it was Friday.  I knew that if a solution was not found by the end of the day, there was no way in god's green earth that I would have ADSL again until AT LEAST Monday. So finally I got my head out of the fuzzy cycle of believing in the bureaucrats, and used my contacts to cut to upper management, which is, in retrospect, what I should have done to avoid this whole mess in the first place.

By shortly after noon, without so much as having called to warn me, another Tech expert was at my apartment.  He came with a new modem, and lo and behold my ADSL was working again. I learned a powerful lesson about Uruguay that day, which Alejo phrased in his usual eloquent way: "in this country, EVERYTHING only happens from contacts".  Its not the last resort, if you have any brains at all, it is the first resort.

Its a lesson I won't forget the next time I have trouble with my ADSL connection, or any monopoly-related difficulty.
Anyways, it's all behind me now. I've learned and grown from the experience, and am none the worse for wear.  Except that I'm not sure how long it will be before I could listen to the Carpenters again without going into psychotic screaming fits.


(Originally posted February 7, 2007)


  1. I used to work at an Israeli cable company (who provide both internet infrastructure, phone services and cable TV) as a call-center representative back in 2007. My job was related to financial services (i.e. dealing with bill troubles); technical matters were handled by another call-center on the other side of the floor. The company was a completely private affair - one of the two providers in Israel (the other is the former state phone company, which was privatized). Things were very similar to what you have described above; the key thing was that we simple phone representatives had very little authority to do anything to help the customer, and were under pressure to wrap up things quickly, i.e. get rid of the customer as soon as possible so that waiting times will be shorter (that's what the management cared about).

    The company was highly bureaucratic, each division or department was its own kingdom with its own rules and there was little coordination between them; most processes required authorization by various bureaucrats, which took time on the customer's expense. They could give any government bureaucracy a run for their money... It was like some East Block government department with a strong profit motive thrown in for good measure. All in a completely private, publically-traded company... Corporate bureaucracy is usually as bad as government bureaucracy, at least from my experience. I actually received gfar better service from the Ministry of the Interior than from the various Israeli telecom companies (which all have very bad reputations in regard to service).

    I wonder if corporations in other countries are less bureaucratic... I think that any large top-heavy, centralized power structure operates in a similar manner.

    So I feel your pain... But also take into account that the various representatives you talk to were most likely prevented from really helping you by management directives and regulations (like I was at that job).

    1. Cable and phone companies tend to be bad about this everywhere, and private ones are often as bad as public ones (see the U.S., for example). But the real problem emerges, private or public, anywhere that there isn't COMPETITION. Whether because it's a state monopoly, a state-sponsored private monopoly, or a private racket. Then these companies have no reason whatsoever in any of the cases to treat you well, because they know they have you trapped; you need to have the vital infrastructure of everyday life that they sell, and you can't get it from anyone else.

    2. The problem is that cable services are very easy to monopolize, after all there is the limit to the amount of parallel infrastructure system you can lay down (especially in urban areas) and the cost of laying large-scale infrastructure is prohibitive, so competitive markets in this field are uncommon. Cellphone systems are a bit easier to get competition in, as they require somewhat less infrastructure (but still a big initial investment). Intense competition usually requires a large number of competitors, two or three will rarely compete in any meaningful way (like the old Israeli cellphone companies who had some sort of an unspoken "gentleman's agreement" not to do price-wars until the government actually shoved new competitors down their throat (by a lot of regulatory actions) which finally led to 8 companies and thus real price-wars (which mean cheap prices), but now the market is consolidating itself and some of the competitors might be out of the race, so we might soon be in square one.

      Competition usually develops with ease when the entry costs are relatively low; the higher the entry costs, the less competition you'll get. This is the trouble with most cable and phone companies, especially as returns on the investment are usually quite late. So very few companies enter than market (especially cable/landline).